Diversity in early childhood setting

The child is entitled to an education which will promote his general culture, and enable him on a basis of equal opportunity to develop his abilities, his individual judgment, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1979

Lesson Objectives

After reading this lesson, you should be able to:

  1. Apply issues of cultural diversity to previously read lessons.
  2. Identify characteristics of several U.S. cultures, particularly as they apply to interactions with families and young children.
  3. Begin establishing a classroom atmosphere that respects, values, and nurtures all children.

As you think about and apply lesson content on your own, you should be able to:

  1. Understand your own culture more fully.
  2. Embark on a lifelong process of learning about others’ cultures.
  3. Collect a bank of ideas for handling diversity issues with skill.
    Incorporate issues of diversity into your developing philosophy of early education.

Social scientists are forever creating new definitions for that elusive word culture, but the one that follows is sufficiently broad for use in this lesson’s discussion of early education. Culture: The knowledge, art, morals, laws, customs, values, attitudes, belief systems, behavioral expectations, and norms that give a society and the individuals in it their identity. Although we have not yet addressed the issue of culture directly in this books first lessons, it has been an important presence nonetheless.

For example, in lesson 1, a variety of career options were presented for your consideration. It was important to point out as we did that some of your choices would necessarily be of little financial benefit. In the United States, there has been a strong reluctance to provide government support for the care and education of our youngest citizens. Without such support, living wages for caregivers and teachers, coupled with reasonable tuition rates for parents, has been an impossibility. The cultural values and belief systems that create our philosophical struggle between a desire for freedom from government intrusion and the belief that young children are a valuable asset for the future have yet to be resolved. For now, young children and their teachers remain the unfortunate victims of this cultural confusion.

The historical figures you met in lesson 2 all observed children within approximately the same age range, witnessed approximately the same development and behaviors, yet emerged from their observations with very divergent ideas for education. In great part, these differences can be explained by variations in the cultures of time, place, and people.

For example, Germany in the mid-19th-century was undergoing significant and difficult political developments. Although Friedrich Froebel maintained his distance from politics, he still was affected by changes taking place in his culture. The growing idea that women should have more power over their own lives and his romantic-era reverence for the role of motherhood undoubtedly influenced his belief that providing training for women to be kindergarten teachers was a form of liberation.

It is also significant that Maria Montessori was born just as Italy was unifying as a nation, with an idealism that included new opportunities for females. Equally important was her exile during World War II, forced on her by her unwillingness to cooperate with the dictator Benito Mussolini. It should not be surprising that she created an approach to early education that treated girls equally and included an environment designed to create a predemocratic classroom society.

Reggio Emilia schools grew from an Italian postwar culture of economic desperation and angry pride. Over the decades, the city’s infrastructure has been rebuilt, and early childhood educators have expanded their knowledge and altered curriculum and methodology accordingly, all in very Italian ways. Thus, we see the University Child Development School in Seattle paying homage to the Reggio Emilia approach in many ways while still retaining its U.S. flavor. For example, there is greater interest in and value placed on, technology. In part, this is due to parental connections with local technology companies, an important component of Seattle’s economic culture.

These descriptions of cultural influences are but examples from each lesson. You are invited to discover other ways in which culture has shaped careers in early education, the views of educationists, and the various models of classrooms and centers.


Complementary to these influences on early education are the diverse backgrounds of the children who attend the schools and centers. In the United States, such diversity has been growing in recent years as immigrants and refugees enter from an expanding number of countries and our own culture increasingly values the presence of children with disabilities in the regular classroom. Arguing that we must look at the education of young children in new ways, one group of authors summarized the situation, particularly in relationship to immigration:

The dramatic increase in immigration in the past 20 years, the young average age of immigrants, and the higher birth rate of several of these groups relative to that of white Americans is changing the face of America’s people. This rapid demographic change has been called “the browning of America.” (Swiniarski, Breitborde, & Murphy, 1999, p. 82)

By the late 1990s, Asia and Africa combined accounted for the largest proportion of immigrants to the United States. When countries were counted singly, however, Mexico was the greatest contributor of new arrivals, with the Philippines a distant second. Perhaps even more telling, the United Kingdom, the original source of American citizens and cultural heritage, was ranked 17th with just 1.5% of the new population. Germany, the leading contributor of new immigrants as recently as the 1950s, did not even make the top 30 countries listed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

From these statistics, it is possible to predict what school and child-care-center populations will look like in the near future. For example, it has been predicted that the 70% White population in 1990s American schools will be reversed by 2026 so that 70% will be non-White. Another prediction is that between 1990 and 2050, the percentage of Whites will fall from 74% to 52% (Swiniarski et al., 1999).

Many people believe it would be a good idea to close the door against the flood of outsiders who want to belong to the American family. The newspapers are full of stories that verify this ongoing sentiment. This is not a new attitude, yet America has always been a nation of immigrants. In the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin worried about the influx of African people, fearing the negation of the opportunity to create a society of “the lovely White.”

In the early to mid-19th century, New Englanders worried about the heavy influx of rural, uneducated Irish fleeing the potato famine. Not much later, there was a nationwide concern about the newly popular kindergartens, which came from a German culture and were frequently taught in German. Would 5-year-olds lose their families’ treasured Anglo-Saxon heritage? At the beginning of the 20th century, well-known educational historian Elwood Cubberley (1920/1965) weighed in with his negative opinion of the increasing numbers of immigrants from across Europe as “largely illiterate, often lacking in initiative, and almost wholly without the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, liberty, law, order, public decency, and government” (p. 485).

Despite such resentment and prejudice, the vilified groups of the last two centuries have managed to overcome most or all of the barriers erected against them, becoming full participants in the ever-changing U.S. culture. Some members of these groups and their heirs, ironically, have even become strong advocates for keeping out new immigrants. Yet, immigrants continue to arrive, and their numbers steadily increase.


In a list of 26 industrialized countries, the United States ranks first in the number of millionaires and billionaires, but 18th in the gap between rich and poor children; first in health technology but 18th in infant mortality; first in military technology but last in protecting children against gun violence. A U.S. child, in fact, is 16 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than a child in the other 25 countries combined (Children’s Defense Fund, 1998).

By the late 1990s, about 25% of American children were found living in poverty. This means that a rather large proportion of children may arrive at the doorsteps of their centers and schools with insufficient nutrition for effective learning. Their language skills may also be inadequate to meet the middle-class expectations of the school curriculum. Their enthusiasm for learning may be dampened by the anxieties and hardships of homelessness or the distress of untreated illnesses.

As the gap between rich and poor widens and as families from increasingly varied backgrounds move into and across this country, early childhood schools and centers have become ever more diverse. An additional influence on diversity is the recent trend toward including children with special needs in the regular classroom.


In the mid-1970s, federal legislation required for the first time that children with disabilities be provided with free public education that was tailored to meet their individual needs. Previously, many children with disabilities stayed at home or went to private schools, and public schools often did not have well-trained special education teachers. This initial special education legislation, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), followed a number of civil rights cases addressing the rights of racial minority students.

The EHA was quite a landmark, amended 10 years later to include eligible pre-school children (ages 3 to 5) and older secondary students (ages 18 to 21) under the federal mandate for special education services. A few years later, the name of the law was updated to its current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The EHA and IDEA and subsequent amendments address the responsibilities of school districts to eligible students and their families. Most recently, the 1997 IDEA amendments emphasize the involvement of special education-eligible students in the regular classroom curriculum for their grades and require the classroom teacher to be a member of the team that plans and monitors students’ individual programs.

The focus of special education services has shifted progressively over the years from exclusion of students with disabilities first to an emphasis on separate, individualized instruction within school buildings, then specialized instruction delivered within the mainstream of classroom and school activities. The diversity in U.S. schools has most definitely been enhanced by inclusion of students with a wide range of abilities.


The final aspect of diversity to be discussed here is that of gender. During recent decades, research findings have led to mixed conclusions about the influences on behavioral differences between the sexes. Do girls play in the housekeeping corner whereas boys gravitate to the large blocks because society reinforces such choices or because their biology is sending them preprogrammed messages? Or is it a combination of the two? Full answers have yet to be discovered, but it is known that young children are still developing their sense of biological gender identity as well as their beginning understandings of what societal expectations are for each sex.

Many younger children are not yet sure what makes them boys or girls, believing that the answer may lie in how they dress or in the games they choose to play. In addition, they have an incomplete understanding of biological permanence, sometimes believing that they might change genders as they get older, perhaps even becoming someone else entirely. Parents may not think to explain biological differences to them, or may find the prospect distasteful. Thus, young children take their confusion to school (Derman-Sparks, 1993). Teachers who simply and matter of factly provide them with information about gender help clear up the children’s confusions, preparing them for sorting out the pros and cons of societal expectations as well.

Janice was a mother who purposely chose a female pediatrician for her children so that they would see the normality of girls growing up to take on a traditionally male career. When her daughter Kelly was 4, Janice was startled to overhear her say to the boy visiting from next door, “Okay. You’ll be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse. Boys are always doctors and girls are always nurses.” On reflection, Janice realized that a medical TV show Kelly liked to watch with her parents reflected the more traditional divisions of labor, and she came to understand that society’s messages could be stronger than the reality of the child’s own life.

We can say that one important goal for any early childhood classroom is “to free children from constraining, stereotypic definitions of gender role so that no aspects of development will be closed off simply because of a child’s sex” (Derman-Sparks, 1993, p. 49). At the same time, the example of Janice and her daughter tells us that achieving this goal involves a major commitment of time, effort, and awareness. And the equity value is inconsistent with many culturally defined gender roles and expectations, a situation not always understood or appreciated by families and teachers.

We wrote in lesson 1 about the misperception that teaching young children is easy, perhaps just a form of babysitting. By now it should be becoming increasingly clear that the actuality is much more complex, that the tasks of meeting all children’s needs fairly and positively are not easy ones. Yet, it is only in recent years that professionals at all levels have come to realize that the issue of diversity deserves specific and increased attention.


In 1987, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published its first edition of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (Bredecamp, 1987) and differentiated between appropriate practice for groups of children at particular stages of development and appropriate practice given an individual child’s own context. Cultural differences, in the first edition, were deemed a part of variations among individuals. A decade later, NAEYC published a revised edition, with the realization that the original view did not sufficiently take into consideration the strong influence that culture has on children’s development and on what and how they learn.

Ignoring or misunderstanding the role of culture in children’s development is a serious proposition” NAEYC concluded and can lead to many different problems in practice. . . . When the cultural rules of the home and the early childhood program are congruent, the process of learning is eased. However, when the expectations of the cultures of the home and the school or child care program are different or conflicting, children can be confused or forced to choose which culture to identify with and which to reject. (Bredecamp & Copple, 1997, p. 43)

An important role for all teachers and caregivers, then, is to help youngsters bridge the disparities between home and school or center. Not to do so can be damaging to children, in both great and small ways. Many beginning teachers choose to ignore cultural differences, declaring that they love all children the same. The result of this attitude, however, is that the teacher’s cultural view tends to be the one imposed on the children, sometimes with a sense of superiority. When teachers convey that their own cultural views are better, the next step may well be to consider children’s differences as deficits. “Failing to recognize children’s strengths or capabilities, teachers may greatly underestimate their competence. Teachers also miss valuable opportunities to use the full range of children’s interests and skills to help them achieve the learning goals of school” (Bredecamp & Copple, 1997, p. 9).

A teacher educator once looked forward to assigning a practicum student to a particular class of 4-year-olds. The majority of the children were learning English as a second language, seemingly a perfect opportunity for this student, who professed an interest in an international teaching career. Just 2 days into the experience, however, the practicum student began referring to the “language barrier” that was preventing her from teaching anything of value to the children. Her professor discussed with her the fact that the children although beginners at English were already proficient in at least one other home language, and some of them—at just 4 years old—already spoke two. This was a feat that the education student had yet to accomplish, as she only spoke English. Nevertheless, the student continued to focus on the “barrier” that kept her from teaching, and soon she began to speak of the children derogatorily, as “English deficient,” seeing the barrier as the children’s rather than her own.

Continued work with the student on the part of her university supervisor and the classroom teacher eventually led her to new teaching methods and respect for the children’s capabilities, but her original attitude is a common one. Perhaps because teachers have an ingrained disposition to fill in gaps of knowledge, they often look for weaknesses rather than strengths in children. A child who brings another culture and another language to class can be evaluated as having a clearly visible set of deficiencies to be fixed. Yet, it is through honoring the child’s abilities and strengths while respecting the family’s culture that a teacher can best reach the child. As one writer has said, young children deserve to be in programs where it is safe for them to be who they are. . . . Children have the right to feel good about themselves, to learn to be courageous, and not to feel like victims. Children are entitled to their cultural heritage and to be proud of it. (York, 1991, p. 23)

Providing children with the respect they deserve requires that teachers and care-givers know something about the cultural similarities and differences their youngsters bring with them each day. To understand most fully, teachers and caregivers also need to know something about their own cultures.

This can be as difficult or more so than learning about another’s culture, because our own daily lives have a ring of reality and neutrality, making other points of view seem alien, even unreal. Sociologists describe our unquestioned views as taken-for-granted realities. One example that is frequently given refers to the preference of U.S. mainstream culture to look directly in another’s eyes when speaking. This is particularly important when coming across as honest is an issue, or a topic of urgency is being discussed.

There are, however, some people who find such physical directness inappropriate, some Hispanic and Native-American cultures, for instance. Thus, a child from one of these groups might look at his feet out of respect for his teacher just when she is saying, “Look at me when I talk to you!” Each person in this unfortunate interchange is, at this moment, in possession of a taken-for-granted reality that is a disservice to the occasion. However, it is the teacher’s responsibility, not the child s, to comprehend this and to move to a better understanding of the cultural complexities that make up a classroom.

One aspect of cultural complexity that should be considered is the fact that there is great variability among individual practices and values within any cultural group. Expecting that all Native-American children will look at their feet while the teacher talks, that all Asian Americans will work hard in school, or that all Anglo-European children are programmed for competitive individualism are generalizations of the sort that lead to stereotyping. What is important for teachers in the United States today is “to remember that we must not expect children to learn the same way. Under-standing and valuing cultural differences may help us change our teaching strategies to respond more effectively when children are having trouble learning” (Swiniarski et al., 1999, p. 73).

Cultural values commonly held by mainstream Americans include individualism, privacy, equality, informality, wise use of time, achievement, materialism, and directness. Yet, individual Americans, natives and immigrants alike, accept these values at differing levels of intensity. Or, they may fully accept most of the values but completely opt out on one or two (Hanson, 1998). One way to begin handling such complexities in our own teaching lives is to take steps toward a better consciousness of the realities we take for granted, to see our own cultures more clearly.


How we see ourselves and our backgrounds has direct bearing on our views of teaching and learning. The first step in dealing with the cultural complexities of teaching is to become consciously aware of our views and the influence they have on our behaviors.

Robin was a first-year teacher being observed by her principal for the first time. For the occasion, she placed the children’s chairs in a horseshoe shape and planned a question-and-answer session around a story they were all reading together. The principal sat quietly in the back, taking occasional notes, until she noticed a disturbing pattern. Robin rarely called on any girls, ignoring their raised hands in favor of answers from the boys. Bit by bit the girls began to wilt visibly, their early enthusiasm soon replaced by looks of boredom or resentment. Eventually, Robin began calling on children in what appeared to be a left-to-right order around the horseshoe.

The principal breathed a sigh of relief; the girls would finally get a chance. To her amazement, Robin did go around the room in order, but continued to ignore the girls by jumping right over them to call on the next boy. When the principal later brought this to Robin’s attention, she denied the possibility that it had happened until the principal showed her the chart she had made of the experience. Together they discussed solutions, finally settling on the idea that Robin make a mental checklist as she called on children, consciously alternating boys and girls as possible.

Caroline, an experienced kindergarten teacher, thought she treated all her children with equality and made sure she gave positive feedback and encouragement in appropriate doses to everyone. One day, a friend on vacation from teaching in another state came to visit Caroline’s class. She enjoyed her time with Caroline, but she observed a behavior that bothered her and decided it presented issues that should be discussed. Caroline was stunned to hear that she regularly hugged and touched the White and Hispanic children but not the Blacks. In fact, she couldn’t quite believe it and spent the next week in some self-observation and soul searching. Finally, she admitted to herself it was true, realized that it was most probably related to her southern upbringing, and immediately went to work changing her behaviors.

It takes continuing efforts toward self-awareness, and sometimes the observations of a colleague or friend, to prepare ourselves well for handling cultural complexity. A good place to start is to reflect on our own cultural backgrounds, particularly in regard to education. Perhaps you come from a family with many educators in it, so that teaching was a natural choice for you. Or, your family may not particularly value education, but you are pressing ahead anyway, because you believe in the career you have chosen. Perhaps your family takes a different view of education entirely, valuing it for training in specific, hands-on trades and not for the more academic approach you are experiencing. Whatever your family’s values and beliefs regarding education, and whether you have accepted or rejected those views, you have been shaped by their influence and will take your attitudes with you into the classroom.

At the end of this lesson, in the section Expanding Your Learning are suggested activities that are intended to help increase your cultural self-awareness. We urge you to try at least one activity. In the meantime, as you have opportunities to work with children, try to observe your own behaviors with boys and girls and with children of different abilities, economic backgrounds, or ethnicities. See if you are drawn to or uncomfortable with one group or another. Then, make specific plans for dealing with your preferences if necessary, so that all children will feel safe and satisfied in their interactions with you.


In addition to increasing our own self-awareness, an important step in serving children well is to learn something about their cultural backgrounds, particularly if their families have recently immigrated or have influential members—grandparents, perhaps—who help determine the families’ views on education and childrearing. This section provides overviews of several cultures commonly found in U.S. centers and schools at the turn of this century. It is important to restate, however, that there are degrees and variations in acceptance of and participation in any culture, even by those who have known only one culture from birth. Additionally, cultures evolve over time, ensuring that some elements may take new forms or even disappear. This is especially true following immigration.

Anglo-European Culture
In the United States, the traditional mainstream culture is Anglo-European. Its roots are seen in documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that underlie legal decision making and the rights and privileges that most citizens have come to expect. The culture’s roots are also in the nation’s mythology of pilgrims seeking religious freedom, patriots fighting their war for independence, and brave families heading west with few possessions but plenty of dreams.

Built into this heritage can be found a Puritan work ethic that only permits play once all tasks are done; independent decision making based on enlightened self-interest; and risk taking that allows for failure but generally expects success. Few people today undergo quite the strenuous challenges of these earlier settlers, but their attitudes can still be found, even in an early education setting. The work ethic remains in the requirement that children finish all their work before heading out to recess; independent decision making occurs when learning choices are made by children at centers rather than by teachers; and risk taking is valued when creativity is nurtured.

Other values (Althen, 1988; Hanson, 1998), most of which can be traced back to the country’s early days and Anglo-European experience within it include:

• Equality. American history is replete with the struggle to live up to this value. From freeing Blacks from slavery to providing women with voting rights, from mandating public education for children with disabilities to grappling with ways to make access to higher education more equitable, the vision of equality continues, slowly, to come closer to reality.

• Focus on the future, belief in progress and change. When settling their new land, early Anglo-Americans had few historical frames of reference for what they did; every decision, every move to a new homesite was an act of pioneering. Their descendants carry with them a belief that people are in charge of their own destinies; that progress is almost always possible, given one’s own effort and self-confidence; and that change is generally for the good.

• Respect for action and achievement, inclination toward materialism. For people focused on progress, change, and self-determination, hard work is, not surprisingly, a concomitant value. Increasingly, the material rewards for hard work have become a strong focus, and the growing materialism that outsiders comment on has become a matter of concern for Americans themselves.

• Attention to time. Progress, change, and achievement may come about through hard work, but respect for the clock is seen as an underlying requirement. Value is placed on being on time and on timely efficiency, not only in the work place but in social interactions. Just as it is important to be on the job at the stated starting hour, so it is expected that arrival at a social function won’t be much later than the time provided by the hosts’ invitation. In the first case, a few minutes early may even be preferred.

• A preference for informality. To many outsiders, Anglo-Americans both at home and abroad may be seen to be rude or lacking in class or culture because of their informality of speech and dress. In recent decades, the respect accorded a new acquaintance by using his or her last name has almost entirely disappeared, even for younger children. Jeans and T-shirts are worn everywhere, even on formal occasions. It is possible that such an increase in informality may, in part, be due to the greater emphasis on equality.

• Communicating with directness and openness. Subtlety and indirect statements are almost foreign to Anglo-Americans. “What you see is what you get” and “telling it like it is” are valued sentiments in most interactions, and communication of feelings often accompanies a sharing of thoughts and ideas. However, in situations such as talking with a business superior or a new acquaintance, typically Anglo-Americans will be more reticent; moving to the next stage of more open sharing is a sign of increasing friendship.

The family. The nuclear family—mother, father, childrenὌdefines the core family for Anglo-Americans. Members of the extended family, who may live at great distances, are referred to as relatives. Although parents do take charge, in America children are also accorded a say in decision making, attaining an early equality not found in many other cultures. The self-determination valued by the larger culture is also manifested within the family, as young adults generally prefer to live outside the home and elderly members also prefer their independence, trying to avoid becoming a burden on the younger generations.

Childrearing. Anglo-American parents essentially begin training their children to grow up and leave home from the time they are born. Newborns are most likely to sleep in their own beds, often in their own rooms. Solid foods are introduced earlier than in some other cultures, and efforts at self-feeding are encouraged and praised. Youngsters may arrive at school wearing mismatched clothing with various fasteners poorly attended to, not because of parental neglect but because the children have been encouraged to choose their own outfits and to dress themselves. In supermarkets and restaurants, young children may be observed making their own choices of foods.

• Views of illness and disabilities. Explanations for disabilities generally follow a scientific model that focuses on specific causes: genetic disorders, accidents, disease, prenatal trauma, and so forth. It is believed by most Euro-Americans that better diagnoses, health treatments, education, and living conditions can be of help. The view that the attitudes and behaviors of parents, especially mothers, are responsible for a child’s disabilities, for the most part, has faded.

Interactions Between the School or Center and Families.
Some cultural customs of Anglo-European Americans are important for teachers to keep in mind (Hanson, 1998). These include:

  1. Treating people equally, no matter their gender or station in life.
  2. Freedom of speech on most subjects, although topics related to sex, politics, religion, and physical traits (such as body odor) are typically not discussed in a formal situation.
  3. People greet each other openly, warmly, and often with a handshake (even if the ensuing meeting is expected to be difficult.) Making eye contact and looking at each other talking indicates honesty and courtesy.
  4. Except for shaking hands, people do not touch or expect to be touched during interactions with each other. Personal space of about an arms length is most comfortable.
  5. Scheduled meetings and conferences are expected to begin on time. If they must be delayed, a brief explanation and possibly an apology are expected.
  6. Parents generally expect to be informed of their children’s progress and are less likely than parents in some cultures to defer to the teacher’s expertise and superiority. Parents of children with disabilities are often strong advocates of their children’s rights and are aware of the teacher’s responsibilities.
  7. Teachers should expect variations in the Anglo-European culture as determined by section of the country, rural or urban lifestyles, and national or religious heritage. (This is good advice for all the cultures discussed in this lesson.)

African-American Culture
Before Pilgrims landed in what was to become New England, about 20 Africans arrived in Virginia. Like many of the Whites arriving at the same time, they had been kidnapped and sold, then bound to their masters for a set number of years until they had earned their freedom. Blacks and Whites alike were treated abusively, and at times ran away together or bore children together. Either action was punishable, but a subtle difference in the treatment of the two races set the stage for the imminent move to slavery. In 1640, the Virginia legislature passed a law decreeing that masters should provide firearms to White but not Black servants. The same year, three servants, one Black and two White, ran away and were captured. All three men received 30 lashes, but here the equality of punishment stopped. The White servants were indentured for 4 more years; the Black servant was indentured for “the time of his Natural life” (Takaki, 1993, p. 56). In other words, he became a slave, one of an increasing number during the 1640s. The spread of slavery throughout the Americas led to the forced emigration of 20 million Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries. Of these, 4 million came to North America.

After the American Revolution, in which Black soldiers from each of the 13 colonies participated, slavery was abolished in the northern states. The Civil War in the 19th century may have freed the rest of the slaves legally, but racism continued and grew alongside the increasing participation by Blacks in all aspects of mainstream life. For example, the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1866, just before the South Carolina House of Representatives found itself with a Black majority. By 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court determined (in Plessy v. Ferguson) that states were free to provide separate but equal institutions, and many states, particularly in the South, seized the opportunity, most notably in regard to schools.

Looking for better opportunities, Blacks began to leave the South, only to arrive at the same time European immigrants were also crowding into northern cities. For the most part, help with education, housing, and employment was provided for the Europeans but not for the African-Americans, who soon settled into city slums. “The impact of prejudice, poverty, and urban ghettos continues to affect many African Americans disproportionately to the present day” (Willis, 1998, p. 169). Yet, by the first half of the 20th century, the exodus of Blacks from the South only grew. Sharecropping in the South was at the whim of floods and insect infestations, and Black farmers found themselves encumbered by increasing debt.

Meanwhile, the influx of Europeans to the North halted during World War I, causing factory managers to send labor recruiters to the South. Widespread institutionalized racism continued in both North and South until World War II, when the military was desegregated, and even until 1954, when the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was replaced by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools nationwide. In various ways, some of them controversial (e.g., the repeal of affirmative action in some states in the late 1990s), the deinstitutionalization of racism has continued throughout the remainder of the century. Yet informal or social racism continues. “Negative attitudes, instilled by years of institutionalized breeding of fear and contempt, are still evident” (Willis, 1998, p. 170).

Teachers and caregivers can expect in their encounters with African-American families, to see both the results of this history of maltreatment and the influences of the Anglo-European mainstream culture described in the previous section. Within each family, the extent of these influences will vary, as is the case for any culture and its subsets. The influences and values listed and discussed next reflect an African heritage but also, at times, input from the U.S. mainstream culture as well.

• Language. The Africans who came to the United States as slaves brought with them a diversity of languages, although there were commonalities within them. It was generally required of Blacks that they learn English, but their interpretation of it was influenced by their native languages. Generations later, some linguistic patterns from these times remain in the speech of many African Americans.

Linguists who have studied the speech patterns of African Americans in recent decades have altered their previous belief that this language is substandard English to an understanding that Black English has its own standardized rules. It has been observed that Black English tends to be used more broadly among people of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and selectively, depending on the social situation, by those of higher SES (Dillard, 1972).

• The family. From the time of slavery, when family members could be sold individually, to the present day, when single mothers are often the official head of household, the African-American nuclear family has been endangered. In its place has been an extended family model with its roots in African traditions. This heritage has led to a valuing of group effort over private gain. With support from the extended family, however, independence is also valued:

This may seem at first to be in conflict with the group-effort ethic, but it actually extends that ethic. It has to do with the empowerment that comes when as many as are able can earn a living, meet their family’s basic needs, and have a little bit left over to help others in the extended family who may need temporary assistance. (Willis, 1998, p. 183)

Respect for elders, although eroding in most facets of U.S. society, is historically an African-American value. From Africa came the belief that the oldest members of society are the closest to God; centuries later this idea still leads to the assumption that these are the people who lead prayers in any group setting. Obedience to parents and older siblings has been emphasized more than, for example, the discussions and reasoning often favored by those of Anglo-European heritage.

• Childrearing. Guidance from adults has traditionally emphasized discipline and obedience. The African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child is born out in the expectation that extended family and responsible community members will participate in the child’s discipline and training. Children are expected to obey the family’s rules and treat others with respect as soon as they are old enough to understand. “Although these beliefs are not acted upon by all African Americans because of their life circumstances, they form a core set of beliefs that continue to be valued by many” (Willis, 1998, p. 189).

• Views of illness and disabilities. These views vary from an acceptance of the scientific model described in the Anglo-European section to a belief in simple bad luck or misfortune to the view that a child’s disability is the result of sinning on the parents’ part.

Interactions Between School or Center and Families
Again we emphasize that it is important not to overgeneralize the cultural influences on any one group. Some ideas to think about with that necessary caution, however, include:

  • Communication is likely to be “high context,” that is, less verbal and more through shared history, facial expressions, and other body language.
  • Emphasis may be placed more on the situation than on time. Thus, it is more important to finish the business of a meeting than to watch the clock.
  • Addressing parents and other adults by their last names and titles until invited to use the first name is considered polite. Not to do so indicates disrespect.
  • Telling ethnic jokes of any kind should be avoided. African Americans often feel as though the joke would be about them if they were out of the room. (This is good advice for all teachers at all times with all cultures.)
  • If an African-American child lives with an extended family, it may be someone other than or in addition to a parent who is responsible for home–school communication and who should be invited to conferences and special events.

Native-American Culture
It is estimated that before Europeans began to explore and settle North America, the Native-American population numbered about 5 million. By the 1800s, warfare and infectious diseases brought by White settlers had caused a drop to just about 600,000 people. The great loss of population led to a weakening of tribal alliances, leaving an opening for aggressive European advancement.

From the Native-American point of view, interactions were more or less negative, depending on the motives the outsiders brought with them. For the French, economics was the driving force. Trappers and traders lived with the Native Americans, learned from and worked with them, and sometimes married them. The English looked more toward building permanent settlements in their own style. Native Americans were at times viewed as impediments to success and were thought of as savages and pagans, scarcely worth noticing unless it became necessary to remove them from the land that the English claimed for their king. The Spanish, like the French, brought economic motives but were swayed more by valuable metals than by furs. In addition, they expended their energies spreading their Roman Catholic faith through the establishment of a system of missions. Native Americans became a source of free labor as well as potential Christian converts. Faced with the powerful English and Spanish forces of expansion, the Native Americans lost hope for keeping either their land or their culture, and for the most part, they lost both.

As the United States began to form a nation, then expanded geographically, policies toward Native-American populations fluctuated wildly. Throughout much of the 19th century, negotiations took place by treaty. By the end of the century, tribes were relocated to reservations on lands deemed undesirable for the ever-growing numbers of settlers. “Such forced relocation not only broke the spirit of many once-proud Indian nations, but also destined them to a life of poverty and hopelessness—conditions that continue to haunt Native Americans today” (Joe & Malach, 1998, p. 130). The 1990 United States Census found that 38.8% of Native-American children were living below the poverty level as compared to 12.5% of Whites and 32.2% of Hispanic children. Only Black children fared worse, at 39.9%.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the government decided that individual land ownership would make the Native Americans more civilized, more productive, and more American. The reservations were carved up into individual plots under the Dawes Act of 1887, with any leftover land reverting to the government for more settlement.

By the 20th century, fewer than 250,000 Native Americans were left in North America. Government policies began to focus ever more on assimilation into the mainstream culture. Children were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, sometimes forcibly. They were punished for speaking their native languages, sometimes by physical cruelty, and denied ties to their home cultures. In the 1960s and 1970s, a time of upheaval nationally, Native Americans across the United States began to demand the return of federal surplus land and the rights given to them by long-dishonored treaties. Such events as the occupation of Alcatraz island and the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, drew attention to the continuing plight of Native Americans. Some reforms began to be implemented and included the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976 and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. The former provided extra resources for improving Native American health both on and off the reservation; the latter gave tribes greater power over placement of children put up for adoption.

Today, children are no longer forced to leave home for boarding schools. They may attend public schools or those provided on their reservations. Too often, those attending public schools have not been treated well. Even when much energy is devoted to making school a welcoming place, parents may be reluctant to participate in any way, recalling all too well the pain of their own experiences.

As you think about interacting with Native-American families, consider the cultural values discussed next. Keep in mind that they will be held to different degrees by people who live on reservations or in urban settings and will be somewhat different from tribe to tribe.

• Group orientation. Tribal affiliation is an important aspect of identity. Some Native-American languages do not include a word for I. Group consensus is important in decision making, and everyone involved is permitted to speak. Decisions may not be made on the spot but are deferred until everyone has had time to think things over. Aggressive and competitive individualism are usually rejected; children who develop these qualities from the mainstream culture may be taunted by their peers (Joe & Malach, 1998). Mainstream teachers may mistake the more typical quiet, self-effacing behavior as evidence of passivity or laziness.

• Acceptance of events. Members of the mainstream culture tend to focus on taking charge of, or doing something about, negative events or natural disasters. The Native-American approach tends more toward acceptance of the situation “as part of the nature of life and that one must learn to live with life and accept what comes, both the good and the bad” (Joe & Malach, 1998, pp. 140–141).

• Self-reliance. Parent-to-child teaching style occurs largely through modeling and direct telling. As children observe their parents in action, they learn quickly about expectations of the adult world. One cross-cultural study (Miller, cited in Joe & Malach, 1998) showed that whereas White and Black children were expected to do regular chores after they reached age 6, Native American children did so at less than age 5½. Native American children learned to dress themselves earlier as well, at 2.8 years old as opposed to almost 4 years old for White and Black children.

• Time orientation. Time for many Native Americans is more flexible than for people in the mainstream culture. Keeping to the dictates of the clock is not nearly so important as making sure that a meeting or conference is finished satisfactorily for all parties.

• Language. During the years that assimilation was emphasized, tribal languages began to disappear. Today, there is a widespread effort to reclaim nearly-dead ancient languages. Some schools, including Head Start centers, begin early to teach children both the native culture and language as well as mainstream culture and English.

• The family. The extended family is frequently important for Native Americans living on reservations, but the nuclear family is more commonly found in urban areas. In extended families, grandparents or other relatives may take a major role in raising young children if the parents are working. It is important for a teacher or caregiver to under-stand each family’s situation before conferring about the welfare of their child.

• Childrearing. The extended family may assign different roles to different members. In some tribes, grandparents may provide spiritual and cultural guidance and uncles may handle discipline (Joe & Malach, 1998).

Traditionally, Native American children were not disciplined with corporal punishment. They were generally introduced to this approach during the often-abusive years in boarding schools run by the mainstream culture. Their years away from home kept Native-American children from learning parenting skills either from their own culture or from the mainstream culture, whose homes they rarely observed. There are attempts during this generation to heal the wounds of the past and to return to more traditional ways.

• Views of illness and disability. Although Native-American families may accept a scientific explanation and treatment of children’s sickness and disabilities, they may also turn to their culture to explain the reasons for the problems as well as for additional treatment ideas. Causes such as witchcraft, spirit loss or intrusion, or spells may be considered important influences. Parents may wish to consult with a tribal healer before or during mainstream treatment (Joe & Malach, 1998).

Interactions Between School or Center and Families
Remembering again that acculturation varies across families and situations, a number of suggestions can still be made for school–family interactions based on Native-American history, traditions, and present-day culture (Joe & Malach, 1998; Krogh, 1994).

  1. Before a conference, ask parents which family members should be included. They may or may not wish to bring others. If several people do come, be sure to address and listen to them all.
  2. Avoid intimidating family members; listen to their ideas and ask questions rather than lecturing to them. Ask them what they see as their child’s special talents and gifts.
  3. Visit the children’s homes or reservation. Be a part of the community from time to time by being knowledgeable about holidays and perhaps participating in special events.
  4. Respect the family’s preference for bicultural or bilingual education for their child.
  5. Take time to learn about the communication style of the Native-American culture in your area. You may need to become more reserved and quiet during meetings than you typically are.

Latin-American or Latino Culture
Today there is concern in much of the United States about illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico, but a century and a half ago the situation was reversed. Then, California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado belonged to Mexico. But, as one Mexican of the time complained, Americans had “formed for themselves” the idea “that God made the world and them also, therefore what there is in the world belongs to them as sons of God” (Takaki, 1993, pp. 172 173). This view was corroborated by the statements and actions of Americans, from presidents to ordinary citizens, many of whom simply moved illegally into Mexican territory. Americans declared it their manifest destiny to control the major portion of the North American continent and, by the end of the Mexican War of the 1830s and 1840s, did just that. Suddenly, the northern half of Mexico belonged to the United States, and the area’s residents found themselves with a choice of heading south or remaining as potential U.S. citizens. Most chose to stay and before long found themselves facing increasing antagonism toward their language and culture on the part of the growing Anglo-European population. The hunger for ever more land also ensured that eventually even the richest Mexican-California landholders were stripped of everything they owned.

Many in the United States today have chosen to forget this past, but those of Mexican heritage have not. Similarly, there is a general tendency to regard most Mexican Americans as immigrants although many can trace their ancestry in the area to the 1700s or earlier.

In the Southeast, particularly in Florida, the greater impact has come from Cuba, the Caribbean island the United States attempted to buy from Spain in the 1850s, then fought over five decades later. Making Cuba a U.S. colony was, at times, on the political agenda but, in the end, it retained its independence.

At the very end of the Spanish-American War, even as the final treaty was being delivered for signature, the United States managed to overtake Puerto Rico and keep it for its own territory. Today, immigration comes from both Cuba and Puerto Rico, but in very different fashions. Because Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, they may travel as they please, usually to find more economically satisfying work, then return home, just as any other citizen might do. Cubans, on the other hand, have arrived as refugees in periodic waves since Fidel Castro’s revolutionary takeover in 1959. Because the first wave of refugees came from the educated upper classes, the Cuban story has been one of greater economic success than has generally been true for Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. The development of Miami as an international trading center has been, to great extent, the result of the efforts of Cuban exiles.

Although less noticeable, because they have not settled in an easily identifiable area, immigrants from Central America have also been changing the face of the United States in the past generation. The teacher or caregiver involved with families from the various Latino cultures needs to realize that there are a number of differences among them, just as there are within each of the cultures we discussed previously. It is not only geographical difference that must be taken into account but class differences as well. To a great extent, the Latin-American tradition has included notable separation of the classes. At the top are those who claim Spanish ancestry; far below are the Mestizo (mixed), Black, and Native classes. A middle-class immigrant family from Mexico City, for example, might well have more in common with the U.S. mainstream culture than with a U.S.-born Mexican family of low-socioeconomic status (Zuniga, 1998). Often, immigrants remain more conscious of their class status than people of the mainstream culture realize.

Although it is difficult to assign a single set of values to a cultural group with so many variations in its subcultures, several attributes can be listed for teachers and caregivers to consider (Zuniga, 1998).

• Machismo and a changing patriarchy. Traditionally, Latino culture has valued strong leadership on the part of the father. In the past generation, this has been changing, as more women enter the workforce and become more highly educated. The tradition remains in many ways and in many families, however, and it is most courteous to speak to the father first if both parents are present at a conference or meeting.

• Personalismo. Warm interpersonal interactions are valued over the task orientation of the mainstream culture. Beginning any encounter with some informal chatting helps establish a good working atmosphere and may go a long way toward establishing trust of the teacher or caregiver.

• Time. Interpersonal relationships are more important than retaining an inflexible timetable. It is important to avoid giving parents the feeling that you are impatient or always in a rush, connoting that you don’t care about them.

• Language. It should not be assumed that Spanish is the first language of all immigrant families. A growing number of them come from areas where indigenous languages are prevalent, and they may not be completely fluent in Spanish.

Communication is generally high context, making body language and attitude as important as the words spoken. Teachers should take care to communicate in all ways their acceptance and respect.

• The family. Although the urban family headed by a single mother is a growing phenomenon, Latino families have maintained a far lower divorce rate than have other cultures, a fact that may well be related to the continuing influence of the Roman Catholic religion. Extended families traditionally have predominated.

• Childrearing. In general, children are viewed as the prime reason for marriage and as the validation of it. A relaxed attitude is taken toward early achievement, with more focus on nurturing and indulging a young child. Both physical and emotional closeness prevail among all members. Identity with the family rather than independence is nurtured throughout the child’s growing up years. Cooperation rather than individualism is generally valued. In poorer families, children may be expected to pitch in by taking on work roles fairly early.

• Views of illness and disability. Middle-class, acculturated families may well have adopted the Anglo-European scientific views described previously. Others may bring with them a folk tradition as well as influences from the Latino Catholic church, which also incorporates many folk traditions. Thus, a disability may be seen as a curse from some present evil force. Belief in a punishing God and in the inevitable tragedy of life may lead to an accepting and fatalistic view of a disability or chronic illness.

Interactions Between School or Center and Families
Some suggestions that may be helpful across the various Latino cultures include:

  1. Always begin interactions with some informal conversation; avoid the temptation to get right down to business.
  2. Tone of voice and body language are important. Avoid coming across as authoritarian, tough, and harsh.
  3. Try not to appear hurried and impatient. Let the parents know that you are listening and that you care.
  4. If both husband and wife are present, speak to the husband first. Unless it becomes apparent that they have adopted a more mainstream family structure, continue to defer to the husband as the family leader.
  5. Communicate your delight in and affection for their children as a centerpiece of, rather than a sideline to, the discussion.

Asian-American Cultures
The fastest growing ethnic minority group in the United States in recent years has been Asian, with a population of about 3.5 million in 1980 expanding to around 10 million in 2000 (Chan, 1998). Of the cultural groups discussed in this lesson, those of Asian influence are, perhaps, the most varied. The inability of many Americans to tell Chinese from Japanese or Thais from Vietnamese indicates a need to become more knowledgeable rather than any actual lack of difference between the nationalities. As one Chinese immigrant’s son argues, the perception that Asian immigrants are all much the same or, at least, mysterious, “serves to disguise the reality of unique customs, traditions, values, beliefs, and familial systems based on political and religious foundations that are thousands of years old” (Chan, 1998, pp. 252–253). Most pertinent for our purposes, a lack of knowledge may lead a teacher or caregiver to misunderstand the feelings that children’s families have toward one another—feelings that may be based on centuries of conflict or friendship.

Over the years, immigration from Asian countries to the United States has been affected by two general influences: changing U.S. immigration policies and difficulties in various Asian countries, such as economic hardship and wars. This section discusses these influences on immigrants from two countries. Further research into the experiences of other peoples will broaden a teacher’s ability to work well with families from other cultures as well.

Chinese-American History.
Widespread famine, economic depression, and civil wars in mid-19th-century China, coupled with the news of recently discovered gold in California, caused the first major influx of Chinese people to the United States. The plan for most of these men, who came by the tens of thousands, was to mine for 3 to 5 years, then return home with enough money to retire on. A very few were able to do just that, and so the legend of Gam Saan (Gold Mountain) continued to grow, despite the fact that most of the Chinese did not do well and had to find more menial jobs to survive. Soon, many of them were hired by private companies contracted to extend the national railroad system to the West Coast. The Chinese proved to be excellent workers who cost less than U.S. citizens, a situation almost guaranteed to lead eventually to resentments and disputes.

The result was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law that banned an entire nationality from entering the United States. It was not repealed until 1943. The years between found some Chinese returning home but many others remaining to face institutional and violent racism. To avoid deportation, it was generally necessary to change ones status from laborer to businessman. The creation of urban Chinatowns provided some cultural security, safety from racism, and business opportunities, and many of these cities within cities remain today.

Due to a rigid quota system, it was not until 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, that a second wave of Chinese could enter the United States. Since preferred status was given to educated, professional, and skilled workers, this second group provided a new stereotype of Asians as over-achievers. Their children and grandchildren are still labeled today with the expectation that they all will be the best performers in their classes.

Chinese-American Language
The Chinese are connected by a single written language, but the pronunciation of its pictographic characters varies widely across dialects. Chinese contains many monosyllabic words that are often differentiated by the pitch, or tone, of pronunciation. Word order is different from that of English, and there are no tenses, plural endings, or verb conjugations. Imagine the total reorientation to language that every Chinese immigrant child and parent must undergo when learning English!

Vietnamese-American History
Although Vietnam’s northern border touches China, and many of its original inhabitants are thought to have come from southern China, the country’s culture and language have evolved quite differently in many ways. China ruled the country for about 1,000 years, but beginning in 111 B.C., numerous rebellions led to independence that lasted until the French colonized Vietnam, from 1883 to 1954. During World War II, the Japanese occupied the country and, this time, rebels adopted Communism. After the war, the French tried to regain control but managed only to retake the south while the Communists controlled the north. With the French finally repelled from the south as well, the country was officially divided between north and south, both sides claiming exclusive power over the entire country. By 1960, war was in full swing with the Soviet Union and China aiding the north and the United States supporting the south.

During the 20 years of the Vietnam war, many South Vietnamese put themselves at risk to aid the U.S. troops. As the south and its U.S. allies lost the war, many South Vietnamese were forced to flee. Over time, more than 1 million became refugees in both Asian and Western countries, primarily in France and in the United States. These ranged from educated professionals to Hmong people from remote mountain areas and to “boat people” who had survived extraordinarily horrific conditions. Immigration policy has been to disperse the Vietnamese throughout the United States rather than permitting “Vietnam-towns” to develop. Thus, in almost any area of the country, teachers and caregivers may encounter second- or even first-generation Vietnamese immigrants.

Vietnamese-American Language
Like Chinese, Vietnamese is tonal, contains many monosyllabic words, and has no plurals, tenses, or verb conjugations. Originally, written Vietnamese was based on the Chinese system but, since World War I, the Roman alphabet, with several additional tone marks, has been adopted.

Shared Values
Although their societies have developed in some differing ways, Chinese and Vietnamese also share values that are similar, with roots that go back thousands of years. Thus, the following cultural traits can generally be applied to both.

• Family. The Asian family as the central focus of the individual’s life “engenders primary loyalty, obligation, cooperation, interdependence, and reciprocity” (Chan, 1998, p. 292). In Asian cultures, the individual is believed to be today’s extension of a family that goes back to the beginning of time. Thus, there is as much thought for the past as for the present. Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese adhere to the ancient Confucian hierarchical system in which the father has primary leadership within the nuclear family but living grandparents are at the top of the extended family.

• Harmony. “The keynote of existence is to reconcile divergent forces, principles, and points of view in an effort to maintain harmony. The individual must strive to achieve intrapsychic harmony, interpersonal harmony, and harmony with nature as well as time” (Chan, 1998, p. 293). Asian Americans guided by the tradition of harmony avoid confrontation; demonstrate constraint in verbal, social, and emotional interactions; help others save face by showing respect; and value politeness and tact. A teacher or caregiver with a tendency toward extreme directness should keep these characteristics in mind in order to help interactions with more traditional Asian Americans to succeed.

• Patience and endurance. Along with patience and endurance, industriousness and tolerance have provided strength to Vietnamese and other southeast Asians who have lived through subjugation, war, and great loss. For the Chinese, it has been important to persevere quietly, without complaint. For many Asian Americans, it is bad form to share problems with someone such as the teacher. They may even smile and assure everyone that everything is just fine, thus politely sparing others the need to share their pain.

• Childrearing. Having children is the cement of marriage, more important than the relationship between husband and wife. During a child’s infancy, loving parents are permissive, tolerant, and ready to answer every discomfort. Breast feeding may last 2 years or longer, but toilet training may begin after just a few months, although it is not coercive. The indulgence of the early years is replaced, once school age is reached, with an expectation of self-discipline, responsibility, and a better under-standing of adult mores and roles. Whereas the early years are characterized by guidance from the mother, the father now participates in childrearing as well, and disciplinary expectations are increased.

• Views of illness and disability. Families that have recently immigrated may well retain traditional views that conflict with the Anglo-European scientific model. A child’s good behavior and success in school are viewed as the family’s responsibility. Thus, a child with a behavior disorder or mental retardation can become a source of embarrassment for the family, someone who just needs more support from home. A mother’s behavior during pregnancy may be seen as the cause of a disability, including such things as eating taboo foods, engaging in reckless or inappropriate activities, or using tools, particularly scissors or knives.

Interactions Between School or Center and Families.
Asian cultures can vary widely, but some suggestions may prove helpful in your interactions:

  1. In communication, body language is much more subdued than in other cultures, e.g., Anglo-European, African American, and Latino. Speaking with great animation may be overwhelming and turn off useful exchanges. Emotional restraint and general reserve will be received with more comfort.
  2. Sustained eye-to-eye contact is considered rude and should be avoided.
  3. Until you know the parents well, avoid asking personal questions about their lives. This even includes asking their opinions on politics, which for many Asian cultures is akin to asking pointed questions in the mainstream culture about religious preference.

Some General Conclusions
There are in the United States today numerous ethnicities, cultures, and nations of origin. It is impossible within the confines of this single lesson to do more than touch on a few. We hope, however, that the descriptions provided here may give the reader two directions for further learning: a better realization that knowledge of child and family background can go far toward positive family interactions and progress in learning; and a better understanding of one’s own culture. If your culture was represented in one or more of the descriptions, were there items that surprised you but rang true? Were there some that did not seem quite right? Should others be added? As we delve further into the attributes of our own and others’ cultures, we gain appreciation of our common humanity as well as greater skill in providing the most positive atmosphere for the intellectual, emotional, and social growth of all the children entrusted to us.

It is important to learn about and respect other cultures, abilities, and viewpoints; yet doing so is not sufficient to move our society forward. It is also important to realize that biases develop very early in children’s lives, thus making it a clear responsibility of early childhood educators to be proactive in their classroom responsibilities.


Here, our goal is to provide some introductory considerations for the reader who is beginning to interact with children and families from a variety of backgrounds. We hope that an atmosphere of acceptance, caring, and concern for all children will imbue the readers teaching goals. As you think about ways to make all children feel welcome and valued, it is essential to have some underlying goals that guide your everyday interactions. The following list is adapted from three books that have proved helpful to many teachers (Derman-Sparks, 1993; Ramsey, 1987; and York, 1991).

Teachers should:

  • Recognize the beauty, value, and contribution of each child.
  • Provide children with accurate, developmentally appropriate information.
  • Encourage young children’s openness and interest in others, willingness to include others, and desire to cooperate.
  • Promote effective and collaborative relationships with children’s families.

Children should:

  • Develop positive gender, racial, cultural, class, and individual identities.
    See themselves as part of the larger society, identifying with and relating to members of all groups.
  • Learn to respect and appreciate the diverse ways in which other people live.
  • Feel pride but not superiority in their racial identity.
  • Feel free to ask about their own and others’ physical characteristics; about issues of racism, ability, culture, gender; and about current events.

Suggestions for achieving these goals include:

  • Look carefully at the rooms materials for play. Do they respect and reflect the cultures of all your children? Commercial tools for the housekeeping corner, for example, typically reflect middle-class, Anglo-European values.
  • Scan all books to see if pictures represent varying ethnicities, ages, and abilities. Are both genders engaged in nontraditional as well as traditional roles? Are there pictures of wheelchairs, eyeglasses, walkers, hearing aids and so forth?
  • Decorate the walls with photographs of people from various cultures, ethnicities, and abilities. Discuss them informally with the children.
  • Balance individually oriented activities with cooperative learning experiences.
  • Display alphabets, labels, and quotes from different writing systems. Teach a few words or numbers in different languages, particularly those represented by cultures in the classroom.
  • Avoid pictures, dolls, and activities that stereotype or misrepresent other cultures: festival clothes presented as though they are worn all the time; historical representations presented as if they were current; teaching about a country of origin to explain about their U.S. descendants (e.g., Japan to learn about Japanese Americans.)
  • Avoid studying ethnic or cultural groups only at high-visibility times (e.g., Blacks for Martin Luther Kings birthday, Native Americans at Thanksgiving.)
  • Do not ignore children’s discriminatory comments or behavior—they will not go away. Rather, make rules about the treatment of others, then intervene immediately if necessary, just as you do with any misbehavior. Teach about feelings, friendship, respect, citizenship, stereotypes, and differences.
  • Listen to your own speech and observe your own interactions. Do you speak with a harsher tone of voice for some children than for others? Do you touch.

In this lesson we discussed the need for all children to feel welcomed and valued in our classrooms and centers. We described several cultures commonly seen in the United States today and the ways in which their members might look at their experiences in and out of the classroom environment. We also considered a few practical ways to incorporate a respect for diversity in the classroom or center. Finally, we should point out that given the multicultural nature of today’s world, diversity is an important issue for all teachers, not just for those who teach in a diverse classroom. All children deserve opportunities to learn about the complex world around them.